When I was a boy, my favorite toy was a battered old stuffed rabbit that had once belonged to my mother. I called him Rick, except when the time came (as it did for all my toys) to play superhero. Then he became Ricochet. As a superhero, Ricochet Rabbit had super-speed and (because one of his button eyes was coming off) bionic vision; he was a noble, trustworthy hero, and popular among his peers. Respected as he was, though, Ricochet wasn’t the leader of the toy super-teamthat honor fell to Kronos, a clown puppet (and former super-villain) who controlled the forces of time.
Their epic saga played out every afternoon in my bedroom, and, as best I remember, I simply sat and watched, not controlling what happened so much as letting it unfold. I suspect that’s what play is like for most kids alone in a room full of toystheir own personality disappears, and they unconsciously create adventures out of bits and pieces of remembered stories. In a corner of the mind largely off limits to adults, children pretend at an incredibly deep level.
The terrific new animated film Toy Story recaptures that sense of immersion in play for kids and adults alike. Toy Story opens in the bedroom of a boy named Andy; we join him as he stages an elaborate western adventure involving all of his toys. For the adults in the audience, who haven’t seen the world from such a low angle in a long time, the first five minutes of Toy Story are a joyful parade of memories. What follows, though, is even better, as Andy leaves the room and the toys come to life.
The plot of Toy Story revolves around the hierarchy of toys in Andy’s room, and how it is upset when a new toy arrives. The old wooden cowboy, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), grows jealous of Andy’s new toy, a shiny, fully loaded spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). In a fit of pique, Woody arranges a mean prank that accidentally sends Buzz out the window into the world outside. Woody, shamed by the other toys, tries to rescue the snazzy rocketeer, but the two action figures wind up captured by a hyper, toy-torturing ruffian named Sid. Staring down their demise, they’re forced to confront what it means to exist at the whim of a childa tough task for Buzz, who believes he’s the real Buzz Lightyear, sent to protect the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg (sold separately).
In the wrong hands, Toy Story might’ve become a maudlin tale about the value and quality of the old over the new, but the movie is smarter than that. The filmmakers realize what anyone who ever sold his child’s toy in a garage sale knows: Kids don’t discard old toysthey simply rearrange the play. In the movie, Andy uses Woody as the bad guy and Buzz as the hero, but the roles could just as easily be switched back in a few weeks. Toy Story does have its sentimental moments, but it’s really more a straightforward buddy picture, with Buzz and Woody zipping from adventure to adventure and learning to work together.
The Walt Disney Corporation has been credited with the creation of Toy Story, but it’s actually just the distributor. The real creators are the computer-animation house Pixar and director John Lasseter. Already highly regarded for their fine animated shortsThe SnowmanLuxo Jr. and the Academy-Award-winning Tin ToyPixar and Lasseter here make the jump to features with their wit and imagination intact. They maintain their festival-circuit sensibilitywith its emphasis on wry, visually distinct, endlessly inventive animated filmsand bring it to the mainstream, a move that is long overdue. Animated movies of the Disney mold have grown stifling in recent years, trapped in incomplete marketing formulas and weighted down by dull musical numbers. By contrast, Toy Story seems positively unfettered: It explores any direction it pleases, limits the music to three poignant Randy Newman songs, and lets the adventure grow into a complete, satisfying story.
As such, Toy Story brims with what kids call “the good parts.” Tiny green army men (their feet lodged on a plastic base, rifles slightly bent) run a tense reconnaissance mission to learn what new toys Andy might’ve received for his birthday. Woody and Buzz, stranded in a Chuck E. Cheese-esque restaurant called Pizza Planet, meet a flock of squeaky alien toys (prizes in an arcade game) who have developed a cargo-cult religion centered on the mechanical claw that carries them away. Grotesque toys that Sid has torn apart and recombinedso much so that they’ve lost all personalitythreaten a spooked Woody and Buzz. And all of these set pieces build to a thrilling finale: a chase through the streets of suburbia with Woody and Buzz whizzing past traffic on a toy race car in pursuit of a moving van.
All the attention lavished on the action and the look of Toy Story, though, is nothing compared to the nuance and character provided the toys, from the voiceless Fisher Price people who bounce around their playsets like harmonious ants to the soul-searching dinosaur (hilariously voiced by Wallace Shawn) to the irascible Mr. Potatohead (voiced by Don Rickles), who provides an addled counterpoint to the more thoughtful Woody. Best of all, there’s Buzz Lightyear himself, whose touching insistence that he is not a toy (although he still takes a subtle pride in being Andy’s favorite) becomes heartbreaking when he realizes he’s deluding himself. The scenes involving Buzz’s revelation are as moving as anything in any film this yearlive-action or animated.
Technically, the movie is dazzling. The computer animation gives each toy a three-dimensional, realistic look. Light gleams off their brightly colored plastic (or at least the parts that haven’t been smudged and dulled by constant use), and their parts clack when they move. Even the most mundane of detailsthe coils in a Slinky Dog undulating back and forth, the slightly distorted recording in the pull-string cowboy dollare thoughtfully in place.
There are a handful of weaknesses in Toy Story. Woody’s constant whining grows a little tiresome, as does the static nature of his conflict with Buzz (“You’re a toy.” “Am not.” “Are too.”) Those complaints seem petty, though, compared with the lasting pleasures Toy Story offers. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and both times the adults in the audience giggled with recognition while their children sat quietly, in the same rapt trance that comes over kids when they’re playing alone in their rooms.
I’d never want to be a kid againmostly because I had my fill of junior high the first time aroundbut sometimes I wish I could recall all the things that happened with my toys on those lazy afternoons. The story went on for years, but if you asked me now to describe its twists and turns, I couldn’t begin to say. All of that is lost, tucked under a bed in a place I can’t quite reach from here. Toy Story is not that place, but it’s within walking distance. Much of what passes for movie entertainment these days is as disposable as a cheaply made, badly constructed plaything. Toy Story is a keeper.
Toy Story has a World Wide Web site. Try http://www.toystory.com/ .
Like Oliver Stone, Brian DePalma and many of the other “barbarian” auteurs who rose to prominence in the 1970s, Walter Hill has suffered throughout his career from an affliction we’ll call Hasil Adkins’ disease. As the legend goes, Adkins, a crackpot West Virginia rockabilly performer, heard a Hank Williams record one time, saw only the singer’s name on the cover, and deduced in perfect innocence that Williams was playing every single instrument on the record at once. Believing that was how records were made, Adkins became a frenzied one-man banda technique that, unfortunately, placed Adkins the compelling rhythm guitarist at the mercy of Adkins the lead-footed maniac stomping off-beat on a kick drum.
Something similar happens whenever Walter Hill directs one of his own scripts. His abilities as a screenwriter can’t match his eloquence as a director, and in movies like The Driver you find yourself admiring his skill at tooth-rattling action sequences while grimacing at his flat-footed dialogue. As films such as The Warriors and Southern Comfort show, Hill possesses enormous talent as a director: He coaxes uncommon performances from actors, stages shoot-outs and fight scenes with virtuosic vitality, and finds a beauty in brutality that seemed lost with Sam Peckinpah (for whom Hill wrote The Getaway). What he seems to lack is a commensurate gift for language and script construction.
The same is true of Hill’s new movie, Wild Bill, which nonetheless remains his most interesting and heartfelt film in years. Although saddled with some stock characters and a lot of weak dialogue, it’s indisputably the work of a great directora film of major themes and majestic ambitions, laced with many fine and poetic moments. Adapted by Hill from Pete Dexter’s novel and Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and SonsWild Bill resembles one of John Ford’s late-period memory Westerns, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: It’s about the distinction between truth and legend, and the burden of a lifetime of bad dreams and bad blood. But its elliptical, experimental style is Hill’s own; with The Long Riders and 1993’s , Wild Bill completes a trilogy about the fading of the West into romanticized obsolescence.
As The Long Riders concerned the end of the James gang, Wild Bill depicts the last years of Wild Bill Hickokplayed with appropriately vain swagger and surprising subtlety by Jeff Bridgesand his ignoble journey’s end in the squalid town of Deadwood. Tormented by glaucoma, haunted by cruel visions and the weight of so much blood on his hands, Wild Bill settles into a fog of booze and opium smoke, denying even the love of the woman who desperately pines for him, the roughhousing cardsharp Calamity Jane (a rowdy and deeply felt performance by Ellen Barkin). While the last hours of his life tick awayclocks and watches are everywhere, constant reminders of the inevitablehe is literally pursued through the muddy Deadwood streets by a memory: a jittery youngster, Jack McCall (David Arquette), who holds a special reason for wanting the renowned gunslinger dead.
The movie is narrated by Charles Prince (John Hurt), a desiccated dandy who’s the movie’s most hackneyed creation. Every revisionist Western from Liberty Valance through Unforgiven contains some variant on this penny-dreadful commentator, and his purple narration is as unwelcome as it is unnecessary. After we’ve seen Wild Bill gun down a half-dozen varmints and choke down a gulletful of rotgut, we don’t really need Prince to tell us Wild Bill is squandering his life as a wastrel. The narration illustrates Hill’s biggest weakness as a screenwriter: his insistence on stating the obvious. When Wild Bill reminisces about his one true love, a widow (Diane Lane) who ended up in an asylum, Hill has Calamity Jane muse something along the lines of, “She was the one, wasn’t she, Billthe one you really loved? I sure wish you felt that way about me.”
Hill’s direction, however, is as consistently inspired as his screenplay is uneven. Hill and his resourceful cinematographer, Lloyd Ahern, use a variety of off-kilter angles and unusual film manipulations (including overexposed video footage) to depict the confusion between past and present in Wild Bill’s mind: Flashes of white in Deadwood segue into Hickok’s bleached-out memories of former victories and lost loves. In the early scenes recounting Wild Bill’s famed exploits, the movements of guns and gunmen are quick but easily discernible; at the end, when Wild Bill faces his last showdown, his victims are reduced to a faceless blurjust a few more shadows of dead men in an old gunfighter’s rheumy eyes. Stunning images abound, from the brown-tinted shots of the Deadwood streets, as evocative as a yellowed snapshot, to a ghostly vision of the widow’s long skirt floating above the surface of a mud puddle as she stands above her lover’s lifeless body.
Wild Bill’s flaws are not minor: They’re woven into the fabric of the piece. I’m not sure you could extract Walter Hill’s bad ideas from his many good ones without rending the entire work, just as Hasil Adkins’ wrongheaded one-man-band ethic gives his music a spooky intensity. Even John Hurt’s clichéd Easterner conveys an important themeto which should we remain loyal, the beautiful lies of our history or the ugly truth? Wild Bill may be a near miss in a career filled with a lot of broken shafts and a few bull’s-eyes, but there’s nobility in its failure. It’s one of the only movies this year that someone clearly gave a damn about making. As such, it’s one of the only movies this year worth giving a damn about.Jim Ridley
Hue and Cry
, a funny, incendiary title for a pretty flat piece of work, John Travolta plays a genial working stiff who ends up kidnapping the wealthy businessman (Harry Belafonte) who caused him to lose his job, his family and his self-respect. Thus far, no big deal. But there’s a nifty gimmick at the center of writer-director Desmond Nakano’s film: Travolta and Belafonte live in a society where black people exclusively control the means of industry, the media and the money; whites fill menial jobs and minimum-wage service positions.
It’s a terrific conceitor at least it would be, if Nakano ever found the balls to use it. White Man’s Burden plays like a drearily well-intentioned liberal drama from the 1950s with the races reversed: The blacks are now wealthy bigots in need of a social conscience, the whites are now the insufferably noble saps, and the story trucks along without a hint of deviation from the formula. Nakano leaves all but the most obvious ethnic and cultural stereotypes unexploredwhites get harassed for no reason by racist black cops, gangsta rap is supplanted by loud, threatening punk rockand quite frankly, some of the race-reversal material merely reinforces racial stereotypes instead of tackling them. (Black people eating on china and drinking wineboy, there’s Twilight Zone material.) In Nakano’s shallow vision, you basically get black people who act like TV sitcom whites from the 1970s and vice versa. If this is hard-hitting satire, then The Jeffersons could pass for Swift.
The best moments in White Man’s Burden are the most pointed and specific. There’s a wicked little scene in which a black charity foundation proudly displays a group of underprivileged white children. The smile on the black charity representative’s face, radiant with paternalistic piety, is the movie’s most withering bit of social commentary. (I laughed, guiltily.)
To their credit, Travolta and Belafonte play their cartoon roles as real people, but too much of the rest of White Man’s Burden is too broad to make the kind of impact intended. To imply that white factory workers and wealthy black businessmen exist only in some kind of race-reversal fantasy is not only insulting, it’s flat-out wrong. Nevertheless, it was unsettling to leave the screening at Fountain Square and see virtually every cashier or concessions position filled by a black man or womanespecially when the advertisement used to attract applicants usually shows someone white. At the screening I saw, the largely black audience laughed a lot more than the few white viewersmyself included. That detail alone is more telling than almost anything in Jim Ridley
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!